Thursday, April 19, 2012

In which my yenta dad doesn't forget his mission

I was hanging out with my dad and his cancer roommate, Jim. Jim had prostate cancer. It had metastasized.

Prostate cancer confined to the prostate is not the worst, but prostate cancer that has metastasized is very bad news.

Jim had almost no visitors. He and his wife had divorced years ago. He had a stepdaughter who lived a few hours away who came to visit once on a Sunday but couldn't come very often because she had work and it was a long trip.

My dad had lots of visitors because he and my mom had lived in San Antonio for about 15 years before the Sicily adventure. So we shared our visitors with Jim. He was a nice guy and we didn't want him to be lonely or feel left out.

He had nobody to take care of him when he left the hospital. He lived far from his stepdaughter, not that she would have been able to do much. When you work full time, it's hard to take care of a sick person.

Primo and I watched the movie 50/50 last night, about a man who gets cancer at the age of 26. He tells his artist girlfriend of a few months that if she wants to break up, that's OK, because it's a lot to ask of someone to take you to chemo and take care of you when you are throwing up in the middle of the night. She refuses to break up, saying she wants to take care of him.

I rolled my eyes. "This is not going to end well," I said.

Even when you love the person you are taking care of and have a lifetime history, it's very hard. You resent the cancer. You hate that everything in your life is about cancer. You hate the damn hospital and the fear and the despair and the not knowing. Towards the end, we all, my dad included, just wanted it to be over. He would wake up in the morning and say, "Why didn't I die last night?" He felt guilty that our lives were consumed with his cancer. All we wanted was to spend as much time with him before he died. But we still all hated the cancer.

Someone I'd only known for a few months?

No way I would take on his cancer. No way.

And of course (spoiler alert, so skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the movie, which you should because it's not often that you see a cancer comedy), she does ditch him, but only after being a really bad cancer girlfriend. She didn't want to ruin their karma by seeing him getting the chemo, so she just dropped him off at the front door of the hospital and then forgot to pick him up. I didn't blame her for not wanting to be his girlfriend any more, but I do blame her for not breaking up with him right away.

Back to Jim. He was being released, probably because there really wasn't anything else they could do.

"But who will help you?" I asked, which was, in retrospect, not the most sensitive question I could have asked.

"I have a plan," he assured me.

Dumb me. I thought he'd lined up a home health nurse.

He hadn't.

He had a plan for everything not to be an issue any more. When I found out, I was very sad. Nobody should have to die alone.

Unless the person is a real meanie jerk.

But a nice person like Jim shouldn't die alone.

Back to when Jim and my dad were still alive and in their room. I was sitting on my dad's bed talking to him. Yet another doctor made his way in to check my dad.

My dad introduced himself and me, then asked the doctor about himself. He always asked where the doctor was from, then about where else he had been stationed, then about family. He did the same thing with the chaplains. He got several visits every week from the hospital chaplains. His favorite was the Episcopalian chaplain, a woman. My dad, a lifelong Catholic, liked to talk to her about theology. When she showed up, he would tell us that we could go get lunch or take a break.

With this new doctor, my dad went straight for broke. "Are you married, Doc?" he asked.

The doctor shook his head. "No."

Have I ever told you that when I was in grad school and my parents were working in Saudi Arabia that my dad told me in a letter that he had started a support group called "Grandfathers without Grandchildren?" He was dying to be a grandfather. He loved little kids.

My grandmother was on the same bandwagon. She sent me a letter asking me if I had considered marrying a widower who needed help raising his young children. (Because that's just what every unmarried woman wants: the chance to raise a dead woman's kids.) "A friend of your mother's married a widower. They live in Marshfield now. She is very tall."

Blessherheart. I loved my sweet grandmother who gardened, taught me to make bread, walked to 6:00 a.m. Mass every morning, and made sure everyone around her, including my schizophrenic second cousin, was fed, but we had different ideas about life.

I wrote back to my dad and told him I could start my own club: Unwed MBA Mothers or Daughters Without Children.

I knew what he was getting at with the doctor. I had to head him off.

"Not married?" my dad mused.

I casually leaned over and took my dad's hand. I squeezed. Hard.

"What's your specialty?" I asked the doctor, trying to change the subject.

"What a coincidence! My daughter here is sing- OW!" my dad exclaimed as I squeezed his hand again.

The doctor looked confused. Jim jumped a little.

I looked at the doctor, blocked my left hand with my right as I pointed to my dad with my left, mouthed, "Morphine," and looked back at my dad. Except of course my dad was stone cold sober. He was just a father with a mission.

Jim looked at me and raised his eyebrows. He knew my dad was sober. They'd been talking about their days in Vietnam and my dad's mind was as sharp as a tack. He would get worse as he had to have more and more morphine, but on that day, he was just fine. He'd even been to physical therapy.

"He's the only patient I've ever had who asked to go to therapy," the therapist said.

"I'm bored and I want to exercise," my dad shrugged. He didn't feel too awful once they got the fluid off him and started him on painkillers and got him through his first round of chemo. The first time wasn't so bad, at least not in the first few days. It got worse every time, though. Chemo is really nasty.

The doctor told me his specialty. Which I don't remember because this was 15 years ago. He wasn't a surgeon or a nephrologist because those guys had already come and gone and said they couldn't do anything. This was a teaching hospital, so maybe he was just a wandering student doc, although he looked older than that. But cute. Older but cute. I wouldn't have minded knowing more about his singleness, but it was too weird to have my dad broker the deal.

I had nothing to say about his specialty. What are you supposed to say. "Oh! Cardiology! Well, there's a profession to love!" See? It looks stupid in writing, too. Here it is, 15 years later, and I still have nothing clever to say back to this guy. I probably just smiled and mumbled. That was my usual strategy when put on the spot. I might even had said something stupid like, "I was going to go to med school, but then I took freshman calculus and chemistry and realized I was not smart enough. Plus I realized I don't like being around sick people." Which is not the right thing to say when you are around sick people, so let's hope this sentence stayed in my head and did not come out of my mouth.

My dad tried to steer the conversation back to the doctor's marital status, but was unsuccessful. The doctor left and I was relived. I looked like crap. When your dad is in the hospital with serious cancer and you are spending every other night in the chair in his room, you don't spend a lot of time on style. You just wash your hair, brush your teeth, and hope that your socks match.

My dad scolded me: "I'm trying to take care of you! He could have been The One!"

Maybe. Maybe I blew it. But finding a husband was not at the top of my list at the moment. Bless my dad's heart.